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Nora Brooks
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It’s early in the evening at the Poetry Brothel, and the Madame, aka the poet Stephanie Berger, is introducing the line-up of poetry whores: writers dressed in corsets and fishnets, or waistcoats that could have belonged to a riverboat gambler. They have alter-egos for the evening, the way strippers do. Tennessee Pink, or Obsidienne. Tonight, the brothel has popped up in a speakeasy down a set of dirty cellar stairs near Delancey. My friend and I have stumbled into a hidden world of velvet wallpaper and naked lady paintings. Two burlesque dancers wait on a small divan to perform a floorshow. Through a small door in the back of the lounge, there are beds curtained off in velvet where for a fee, a poetry whore will softly read a poem to you. We palm flowered teacups of absinthe and consider our options. A young poet draped in rhinestones reads a couple of stanzas as a sample of her wares. Berger, red hair in a swirl supporting several peacock feathers, approaches the mic. “This poem,” Berger says in a flat, girlish voice, “is very expensive.” It’s a statement that upends the common observation that poetry doesn’t pay, or that the general public out for some light entertainment will not pay for it. There seems to be something subversive at work here, something pushing back against how poetry is currently positioned somewhere just on the edge of the national stage. To investigate, I spoke with Berger and her co-founder Nicholas Adamski from the road on their recent West Coast tour. They have the rapport of longtime friends, voices overlapping down the scratchy phone line, occasionally interrupting to finish each other’s sentences. Berger told me: “Poets just give their work away for the most part.” Adamski added: “The Poetry Brothel’s mission was and continues to be training poets that the work that they do is worth money. And convincing the public that poetry is also worth money.” This notion would not have been as unconventional as recently as the 1950s, when Dylan Thomas was able to replenish his anemic finances by touring America to sold-out shows, which was arranged by an agent–and by all accounts, he gave a great show. Like W.H. Auden or Edna St. Vincent Millay before him, he was as close as you can get to a poet being a popular performer. On either side of the Atlantic, poetry was entertainment then. But recreating a lost space and time is a lot of what the Poetry Brothel has been up to from the beginning, when Berger gathered a round table of friends in a conference room at The New School to figure out what exactly a poetry brothel was. “She had like a fever dream, sweat lodge vision,” Adamski remembered. Fellow MFA students at the School of Writing, Adamski was working on a thesis on erotic poetry, and Berger was researching New Orleans sex workers. They were not interested in the standard podium and folding chairs of literary readings. The... Continue reading
Posted May 14, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Last fall, I enrolled in a literature seminar in the New School writing program unlike any literature class I’ve ever taken: the AshLab. The project of the class involved contributing to creative and scholarly research documenting John Ashbery's poetry as well as his 19th-century Victorian residence in Hudson, New York. The work is intended for a general audience to read on a website. On Monday, April 8, The New School hosted a presentation by the collective hive mind of faculty and students that over the course of four semesters has produced this new virtual archive, which went live last week. I was honored to be included in this presentation and to share my remarks here in this forum. I joined the class because I was interested in the relationship between a poet’s environment and a poet’s work. The minute I entered John Ashbery’s house, I got a sense of this connection. The outside of his house is grand. There is a rise of stone steps, a bend of stonework supporting a large stained glass window, the kind that makes a cathedral of a fine house. However, the house inside is smaller than these details make it seem. There’s even a fake outside window that suggests more rooms than there are. This is not an accident. The house was built in the 1890’s by a nouveau riche family to create exactly this illusion of a bigger scale. Which might make it the perfect environment for an illusionist like Ashbery. Ashbery’s work has a similar way of gliding out of view. The meaning is deferred elsewhere: references to sources as varied as a Greek myth, a fragment of popular culture, or something in a 1960s newspaper. I’ve been intrigued by the ways I’ve seen the environments of Ashbery’s poems overlap the environments he’s created in the rooms of his home. I’ve found correlations, connections, echoes, allusions, webs of reference between specific objects I’ve researched in Ashbery’s collections of art and other obsessions on the one hand, and poems of Ashbery’s that I’ve studied thoroughly and annotated on the other. Often these connections have seemed quite explicit and solid to me. But as with everything Ashbery, they can quickly feel slippery and elusive, and difficult to defend beyond my own sense of play and imagination. But solid or slippery, the paths have always taken me farther and farther inward — into Ashbery’s house and deeper into his complex and complicated and wonderful poems. So the experiment of correlations I made for myself is something I want to share with you. I invite you to explore Ashbery’s house and some of his poems, pulled by your own associations and curiosity. I hope this opens new paths, new way-finding into Ashbery’s oeuvre, paths marked by play and exploration. There can obviously be many such paths. Some of mine can be found here. -- Nora Brooks Continue reading
Posted Apr 17, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Join Best American Poetry series editor David Lehman and poet and editor Dan Nester as they read and delve into the mysteries of the sestina, a 700 year old poetic form that continues to beguile poets and poetry lovers with its arcane rules and rigid structure. Nester is the editor of The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing), a volume that gathers more than 100 sestinas by poets from Sherman Alexie to Louis Zukovsky and includes classics as well as modern masterpieces. The sestina comprises six six-line stanzas plus a final three line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are repeated throughout in a prescribed order andagain in the final three lines. Nester will read selections from the anthology to demonstrate how what might seem like a dry set of rules becomes a lively, engaging poem. Following the reading he will field questions from David Lehman and the audience. BOOKS WILL BE FOR SALE BEFORE AND AFTER THE FORUM DANIEL NESTER is a poet, journalist, and essayist. His work has appeared in Salon, The New York Times, The Morning News, The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, N+1, on the Poetry Foundation website and elsewhere. His poetry has been published in many magazines and journals including Gulf Coast, Barrow Street, jubilat, Crazyhorse, Open City, Slope, Spoon River Poetry Review His work has been anthologized in such collections as Third Rail: the Poetry of Rock and Roll, The Best Creative Nonfiction and The Best American Poetry. Dan is an associate professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, where he teaches creative nonfiction and poetry and is on the core faculty of their MFA program in creative writing. DAVID LEHMAN is the author of many collections of poems, including most recently New and Selected Poems (Scriber, 2013). Among his books of non-fiction include A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Shocken Books, 2009) and The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), which was named a “Book to Remember 1999” by the New York Public Library. He edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), and is the series editor of The Best American Poetry. He is the poetry coordinator of the graduate writing programs at the New School. Continue reading
Posted Jan 29, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
In its inaugural exhibition, Dumbo Sky presents artist and poet Joseph A. W. Quintela’s sculptural series, Portrait of the Artist as the Cast of You in Eye. Molded from shredded dictionaries on Quintela’s own body, this collection of self-portraits engages questions of self-definition, blurred identity, multiple personas, and building an understanding of others via de-formation of self. The closing reading this Thursday will feature such poets as Best American Poetry series editor David Lehman, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Jackson Taylor, Maya Pindyck, Ronnie Norpel, and Joseph A.W. Quintela. The poets will read in pairs with short intermissions following a closing celebration. Lehman received considerable attention for his daily poems in The Daily Mirror, which he characterized as “bulletins from within,” and he will be reading on this occasion from the forthcoming New & Selected Poems that collects his work to date, “a retrospective hall of mirrors.” Named an emerging poet to watch by O Magazine, Griffiths is known for her literary portraits and is at work on Poets on Poetry, an interview project on individual human experience and culture in poetry. Director of P.E.N.’s Prison Writing Program and a founder of the MFA program at The New School, Jackson Taylor is the author of The Blue Orchard, a novel that won acclaim for its portrayal of a scandal in the life of the author’s own grandmother. He is currently directing the writing program at St Joseph's College. Dumbo Sky is a new literary and visual art space located at Dumbo’s waterfront, launching this fall with literary events, art exhibitions and theatrical performances. Thursday night October 17, 2013, the closing reception is at 7 PM, reading at 8 PM, open wine / beer bar, FREE. -- Nora Robertson Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Tina Chang, Brooklyn’s poet laureate, will read at The New School’s Poetry Forum next Wednesday, to be followed by a Q&A moderated by David Lehman. A graduate of Columbia’s MFA program and a native New Yorker, Ms. Chang’s work has been noted for its lush attention to memory and the effect of political and social conditions on our most personal family moments. Her latest collection is Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books, 2011), which followed her debut in 2004 with Half-Lit Houses (Four Way Books). Ms. Chang was also the co-editor of an anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (Norton, 2008). Her poetry collections will be available for sale at the reading. -- Nora Robertson Continue reading
Posted Oct 4, 2013 at The Best American Poetry